Washington, DC — Industry pressure has blocked implementation of steps to protect endangered Florida manatees from harassment by “swim with the manatees” tourists, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). As a result, hordes of swimmers may drive manatees from the warm spring refuges critical to their survival as winter nears.
This September, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service announced plans to significantly limit the number of tour operator permits issued, require trained guides to accompany a maximum of five “swim-with” visitors, prohibit diving and use of fins, and enact other measures for the largest warm water habitat for the manatees – the Three Sisters Springs Unit of Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge. After reviewing public comments, the Service decided that its original plan did not do enough to protect the manatees and announced further restrictions on November 10th, including reducing the maximum number of visitors allowed in the water at any one time and other control measures.
These measures were slated to go into effect this week but, citing pressure from “tour operators, the Citrus County Chamber of Commerce, and congressional representatives,” the Service announced it would take three more weeks of public comments. This additional delay pushes any decision past the beginning of manatee season and into the New Year. Consequently –
- Rampant abusive tourist behavior, such as kicking, chasing or surrounding manatees and separating mothers from calves, will continue unabated;
- Even emergency closures of entrances and narrow bottlenecks are on hold; and
- A record number of tourists are expected to descend onto this vital warm spring habitat that is less than one acre in area.
As the Service’s Draft Environmental Assessment noted:
“Of particular concern is the spring run area, the current in-water entrance to the Springs. At the narrowest point, at mid-tide, the spring run is approximately 5 feet wide. These limited dimensions create a bottleneck for manatees, snorkelers, and paddlecraft that may cause a safety hazard to visitors as well as the potential to disturb manatees. Additionally, manatee ingress and egress has strong possibility to be blocked on many occasions due to the high volume of snorkelers and boaters…”
“By trying to make its plan more effective, the Service got politically sideswiped to the detriment of the manatee,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, whose organization has long been pressing for safeguards and releasing internal documents showing that visitor behavior has “gotten out of control.”
“Manatees are getting stiffed this year for the holidays.”
So far this year, 367 endangered manatees have died from causes ranging from collisions with boats to cold stress. A severe cold snap this winter could cause manatee deaths to spike much higher as has occurred in past years.